The Latest: Taliban takeover stuns Biden, other US officials
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and other top U.S. officials have been stunned by the pace of the Taliban’s nearly complete takeover of Afghanistan, as the planned withdrawal of American forces urgently became a mission to ensure a safe evacuation.
The speed of the Afghan government’s collapse and the ensuing chaos posed the most serious test of Biden as commander in chief, and he was the subject of withering criticism from Republicans who said that he had failed.
Biden campaigned as a seasoned expert in international relations and has spent months downplaying the prospect of an ascendant Taliban while arguing that Americans of all political persuasions have tired of a 20-year war, a conflict that demonstrated the limits of money and military might to force a Western-style democracy on a society not ready or willing to embrace it.
By Sunday, though, leading figures in the administration acknowledged they were caught off guard with the utter speed of the collapse of Afghan security forces. The challenge of that effort became clear after reports of sporadic gunfire at the Kabul airport prompted Americans to shelter as they awaited flights to safety.
UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is urging the Taliban and all other parties to exercise “utmost restraint” in order to protect the lives of Afghans and ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Sunday that “the United Nations remains determined to contribute to a peaceful settlement, promote the human rights of all Afghans, notably women and girls, and provide life-saving humanitarian assistance and critical support to civilians in need.”
The U.N. humanitarian office said members of the humanitarian community — both from the U.N. and non-governmental organizations — remain committed to helping the millions of Afghans needing assistance and are staying in the country despite the “highly complex” security environment.
The office, known as OCHA, said in a statement Sunday that more than 18.4 million people were already in need of assistance before more than 550,000 people were displaced by conflict this year, a figure that doubled since May.
This story has been corrected to show that OCHA said more than 18.4 million people were already in need of assistance, not 550,000.
KABUL, Afghanistan — A Taliban spokesman and negotiator tells The Associated Press that the militant group is holding talks aimed at forming an “open, inclusive Islamic government” in Afghanistan.
Suhail Shaheen spoke to the AP after the Taliban overran most of the country in a matter of days and pushed into the capital, Kabul, as the United States scrambled to withdraw diplomats and other civilians.
Earlier, a Taliban official said the group would announce a new government from the presidential palace, but those plans appear to be on hold.
WASHINGTON — The United States is sending another 1,000 troops to Afghanistan, raising the U.S. deployment to roughly 6,000.
A defense official tells The Associated Press on Sunday that 1,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne are going directly to Kabul instead of going to Kuwait as a standby force. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a deployment decision not yet announced by the Pentagon.
On Saturday, President Joe Biden authorized the U.S. troop deployment to rise to roughly 5,000 by adding about 1,000. Since then, the Taliban have entered the capital of Kabul and Afghanistan’s president has fled the country.
Helicopters have been evacuating personnel from the U.S. Embassy, and several other Western missions also are preparing to pull their people out.
— Robert Burns
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Al-Jazeera news network is airing footage of a large group of Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace in the capital of Afghanistan.
The Taliban are expected to announce their takeover from the palace, renaming the country as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The militants have taken over most of Afghanistan in a matter of days as the U.S. scrambles to withdraw after 20 years of war.
LONDON — Britain’s Defense Ministry says U.K. troops have arrived in Kabul to help evacuate remaining Britons there.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said after chairing a Cabinet emergency committee meeting Sunday that the priority is to get out British nationals, as well as Afghans who helped U.K. forces in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, “as fast as we can.”
“The ambassador is working round the clock, has been there in the airport to help process the applications,” he told Sky News. “We certainly have the means at the moment to get them out … It’s just a question of making sure that they’re able to do it over the next few days.”
The “vast bulk” of embassy staff and officials have already left Afghanistan, Johnson added.
NEW YORK — The Latest developments on Afghanistan, where a Taliban blitz has taken large swaths of territory just weeks before the final pullout of American and NATO troops:
The U.N. Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on Afghanistan Monday morning (10 am EDT) at the request of Estonia and Norway.
Council diplomats said Sunday that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will brief council members on the latest situation following the Taliban takeover of the capital, Kabul.
The U.N. chief on Friday had urged the Taliban to immediately halt their offensive in Afghanistan and negotiate “in good faith” to avert a prolonged civil war. He also said he is “deeply disturbed by early indications that the Taliban are imposing severe restrictions in the areas under their control, particularly targeting women and journalists.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Senior U.S. military officials say Kabul’s international airport has been closed to commercial flights as military evacuations continue.
The suspension of commercial flights cuts off one of the last avenues to escape the country for Afghans fearful of Taliban rule. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations.
The Taliban captured most of the country in a matter of days and swept into the capital on Sunday.
Scenes of chaos played out at the airport earlier, as Afghans rushed to get on the last flights out of the country.
Videos circulating online showed airport personnel struggling to coral crowds boarding a plane on the tarmac, while a man with an injured leg lay on the ground. In the background, a U.S. Air Force plane was landing.
KABUL, Afghanistan — A Taliban official says the group will soon declare the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from the presidential palace in the capital, Kabul.
That was the name of the country under the Taliban government ousted by U.S.-led forces after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.
KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has suspended all operations and told Americans to shelter in place, saying it has received reports of gunfire at the international airport.
The U.S. is racing to airlift diplomats and citizens out of Afghanistan after the Taliban overran most of the country and entered the capital early Sunday.
“The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly and the situation at the airport is deteriorating rapidly,” the embassy said in a statement.
“There are reports of the airport taking fire and we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place. The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan has suspended consular operations effective immediately. Do not come to the Embassy or airport at this time.”
PARIS — France is relocating its embassy in Kabul to the airport to evacuate all citizens still in Afghanistan, initially transferring them to Abu Dhabi.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain said in a statement Sunday that military reinforcements and aircraft would deploy in the hours ahead to the United Arab Emirates, “so that the first evacuations toward Abu Dhabi can start.”
Evacuations have been in progress for weeks and a charter flight put in place by France in mid-July. Since May, France has taken in Afghan employees at French structures under potential threat, with 600 people relocated to France.
France gradually pulled out troops from Afghanistan between 2013 and 2015, and since then former personnel who worked for the French Army and their families, some 1,350 Afghans, were brought to France, the statement said.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan leaders have created a coordination council to meet with the Taliban and manage the transfer of the power, after the religious militia’s lightening offensive swept to the capital, Kabul.
In a statement posted on social media by former president Hamid Karzai, he said the body will be led by the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, as well as the leader of Hizb-e-Islami, Gulbudin Hekmatyar, and himself.
The statement said the move was “to prevent chaos and reduce the suffering of the people,” and to manage peace and a “peaceful transfer.”
BERLIN — The United Nations refugee agency says more than 550,000 people in Afghanistan have fled their homes due to the conflict since the start of this year.
A situational update published Sunday by Geneva-based UNHCR shows about 126,000 people were displaced in the previous month to Aug. 9, the most recent date for which figures are available.
A spokeswoman for UNHCR said that while the situation inside Afghanistan is fluid, “for now the displacement is largely internal.”
“There is a need to support the humanitarian response in the country,” Shabia Mantoo told The Associated Press. “If we do see cross border movement then additional support outside the country will be necessary too.”
The agency continues to have international and Afghan staff on the ground, she said.
BERLIN — German media have issued an urgent appeal to Chancellor Angela Merkel and the country’s foreign minister for an emergency visa program to help local staff who worked for them to leave Afghanistan.
In an open letter Sunday, major German newspapers, public and commercial broadcasters, and the dpa news agency warned that “the lives of these freelance staff are now in acute danger.”
The media outlets stressed that reporting from Afghanistan over the past two decades would have been “unthinkable without the efforts and bravery of the Afghan staff who supported us on the ground: local journalists, stringers and translators.”
Citing several recent fatal attacks on journalists, the letter said that due to the advance of the Taliban “it must be feared that such murders will now dramatically increase – and many of our staff are at risk.”
“We are convinced: there is no time to lose now,” it adds. “Our staff who want to leave the country are at risk of persecution, arrest, torture and deaths. That is why we ask you act quickly.”
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan officials say embattled President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country as the Taliban moved further into Kabul.
Two officials speaking on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to brief journalists told The Associated Press that Ghani flew out of the country. Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, later confirmed Ghani had left in an online video.
“He left Afghanistan in a hard time, God hold him accountable,” Abdullah said.
Ghani’s whereabouts and destination are currently unknown.
TORONTO — Canada has suspended diplomatic operations in Afghanistan and Canadian personnel are on their way back to Canada.
Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said in a statement the decision to suspend operations is temporary and the embassy will reopen if the security situation allows staff to be safe.
Some 40,000 Canadian troops were deployed in Afghanistan over 13 years as part of the NATO mission before pulling out in 2014. More than 150 Canadian soldiers died during the Afghanistan mission.
WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the U.S. is evacuating remaining staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as the Taliban enter the Afghan capital. But he is playing down America’s hasty exit, saying “this is manifestly not Saigon.”
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Blinken said: “The compound itself, our folks are leaving there, and moving to the airport.”
Blinken also confirmed that U.S. Embassy workers were destroying documents and other items ahead of fleeing the embassy, but insisted “this is being done in a very deliberate way, it’s being done in an orderly way, and it’s being done with American forces there to make sure we can do it in a safe way.”
The evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul had U.S. military helicopters lifting off from embassy grounds Sunday, and sent puffs of black smoke up into the skies over Kabul as U.S. officials worked to keep sensitive material from falling in Taliban hands.
The scene comes after President Joe Biden earlier this year played down any idea that the Taliban could capture the country, or that the Afghanistan war would end up in scenes reminiscent of the Vietnam one, with military helicopters taking off from embassy rooftops.
Blinken defended Biden’s decision to end the nearly 20-year U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, saying Biden’s hands were tied by a withdrawal deal President Donald Trump struck with the Taliban in 2020.
If Biden had called off the withdrawal, “we would have been back at the war with the Taliban,” and forced to surge tens of thousands of American forces back into Afghanistan, Blinken said.
__ Ellen Knickmeyer in Oklahoma City.
ISLAMABAD — A special flight of Pakistan’s national airline PIA has arrived in Islamabad carrying 329 passengers from Kabul, and another carrying 170 people will arrive later today. A spokesman for the airline said Saturday that the airline will operate three flights tomorrow to transport Pakistanis and other nationalities looking to leave Kabul.
PIA and other commercial flights from Kabul were heavily delayed Sunday due to a U.S. military transport plane that blocked the runway, the airline said.
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will brief House members on the situation in Afghanistan in an unclassified virtual conference on Sunday morning, according to an invitation obtained by The Associated Press.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi requested the meeting along with an in-person classified briefing when the House is back in Washington the week of Aug. 23.
— Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington
BERLIN — NATO says that it is “helping to maintain operations at Kabul airport to keep Afghanistan connected with the world.”
In a statement it says that it would also maintain its diplomatic presence in Kabul. “The security of our personnel is paramount, and we continue to adjust as necessary,” it added.
NATO provided no details on its number of staff still in Afghanistan, but said it was “constantly assessing developments” in the country.
“We support Afghan efforts to find a political solution to the conflict, which is now more urgent than ever,” the statement said.
ISTANBUL — Turkey’s president says his country will work for stability in Afghanistan along with Pakistan, in order to stem a growing migration wave amid the Taliban’s countrywide offensive.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Afghans were increasingly attempting to migrate to Turkey via Iran, urging an international effort to bring stability to the country and prevent mass migration.
Erdogan was speaking at a naval ceremony with Pakistan’s president. He said Pakistan had a “vital task” to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, where clashes have intensified. Turkish-Pakistani cooperation would be needed for this, and Turkey would use all possibilities to do so, Erdogan added.
Erdogan did not mention any changes to a proposal for Turkey to secure and operate the airport in Kabul.
MADRID — Spain’s defense ministry says it has not yet begun evacuating Spanish nationals and Afghan staff including translators who are expected to be flown out alongside its citizens, but was speeding up its plans.
In an emailed statement it says that “the evacuation plan for Afghanistan is being accelerated to the maximum,” adding that “details are finalized on logistics and the people who will be evacuated,” but they cannot give more details for security reasons.
WASHINGTON — A U.S. official says American diplomats in Afghanistan are being moved from the embassy in Kabul to the airport as the Taliban enter the capital.
The official says military helicopters are shuttling between the embassy compound and the airport, where a core presence will remain for as long as possible given security conditions.
The official was not authorized to discuss diplomatic movements and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Relocating a core group of embassy staff to the airport had been a contingency plan as the Taliban made dramatic territorial gains over the past several weeks before the final withdrawal of U.S. troops by Aug 31.
— Matthew Lee in Washington.
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said Sunday that he shares “the unanimous concern for the situation in Afghanistan” as Taliban fighters sweep across the war-torn country.
He spoke as the Taliban entered the outskirts of Kabul, the Afghan capital, and said they were awaiting a “peaceful transfer” of the city.
From a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, the pope asked for prayers “so that the clamor of weapons may cease and solutions may be found at the negotiating table.”
He added that “only in this way, may the battered population of the country — men and women, elderly and children — return to their homes and live in peace and safety, with full mutual respect.”
BERLIN — Germany is sending military transport planes to Kabul to begin the evacuation of its embassy staff Monday.
The German news agency dpa reported Sunday that the mission will include the evacuation of local Afghan staff working for the German embassy. A German official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to be quoted, told The Associated Press that paratroopers will secure the operation.
The military planes are expected to ferry evacuees from Kabul to a base in Central Asia, from where charter planes will bring them to
— Frank Jordans in Berlin.
MILAN — Italian media reported Sunday that most personnel at the Italian Embassy in Kabul are being transferred to the Afghan capital’s airport in preparation for evacuation.
The report Sunday by Corriere della Sera said the move affects some 50 Italian staffers and 30 Afghan employees and their families, along with Carabinieri paramilitary police protecting the embassy.
The Foreign Ministry confirmed that staff were being transferred to the airport, as other nations were in the process of doing, but could not give numbers or timing.
Italy’s defense minister has said that 228 Afghans and their families have already been transferred to Italy, calling it a “moral duty” to protect those who had worked with Italy and who would face reprisals by the Taliban.
The Italian agency LaPresse reported a flight carrying Italian embassy staff would depart Kabul Sunday evening.
MOSCOW — Russia’s state news agency reported Sunday that the Taliban promised to guarantee the safety of the Russian embassy in Kabul.
Tass quoted Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, as saying that the organization has “good relations with Russia” and a “policy in general to ensure safe conditions for the functioning of the Russian and other embassies.”
The Kremlin’s envoy on Afghanistan said Sunday that there are no plans to evacuate the Russian embassy in Kabul. Zamir Kabulov told the Interfax news agency that Russia’s ambassador and its staff are “calmly carrying out their duties.”
The reports came as Taliban fighters entered Kabul after a week-long blitz ahead of the final pullout of American and NATO troops. The Taliban said they don’t plan to take the capital city by force.
MOSCOW — Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry reported Sunday that 84 Afghan servicemen crossed the border into Uzbekistan asked for assistance.
Uzbek guards detained the group of Afghan military when they crossed the border. The group included three wounded soldiers that needed medical help, the ministry said. The men were offered food and temporary accommodation in Uzbekistan, and the ministry was in touch with Afghan officials regarding the return of Afghan soldiers to their home country.
The announcement Sunday came as Taliban fighters entered Kabul after a week-long blitz ahead of the final pullout of American and NATO troops. The Taliban said they don’t plan to take the capital city by force.
TIRANA, Albania — Albania’s prime minister says his country will temporarily shelter hundreds of Afghans who worked with the Western peacekeeping military forces and are now threatened by the Taliban.
On his Facebook page, Edi Rama said the U.S. government had asked Albania to serve as a “transit place for a certain number of Afghan political emigrants who have the United States as their final destination.”
“No doubt we shall not say no,” he said.
He added that the Albanian government has also responded positively to requests from two U.S. NGOs to shelter hundreds of Afghan intellectuals and women activists who have been threatened with execution by the Taliban.
The Albanian prime minister said that his country stands alongside the United States “not only when we need them for our problems … but even when they need us, any time.”
LONDON — British media are reporting that the U.K.’s ambassador to Afghanistan is to be airlifted out of the country by Monday evening amid fears that the Taliban could seize the airport imminently.
The Foreign Office had intended for Laurie Bristow and a small team of officials to remain at the airport with other international diplomats. But the Sunday Telegraph reported that their departure had been brought forward. The Foreign Office declined comment.
Last week the defense ministry said 600 British troops were being deployed to Kabul to help evacuate some 3,000 British nationals and about 2,000 Afghans who worked with British forces.
A Royal Air Force Hercules aircraft was reported to have flown out of the airport on Saturday carrying diplomats and civilians.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace defended Britain’s move to pull troops out of the country. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he said “we have not betrayed Afghanistan.”
He wrote that the U.K. could not “go it alone” after the U.S. announced its plans to withdraw. “It would be arrogant to think we could solve Afghanistan unilaterally,” he said.
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan has closed the Torkham border point with Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of the Afghan border facility, the interior minister said Sunday.
Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the decision to close the Torkhan border was taken due to due to an extraordinary situation on the other side. Ahmed told the local Geo television that the border was closed when Afghan police surrendered to the Taliban.
Ahmed said the Chaman border point with Afghanistan remains open.
Pakistan has already said that it cannot bear any load of new Afghan refugees in the wake of crisis in the war-torn country. Pakistan is about to complete fencing along the long, porous border, saying the step has been taken to check the militants’ movement across the border.
ISTANBUL — An Afghan official and the Taliban say the militants have seized the provincial capital of Khost.
The capture Sunday makes the capital the latest to fall to the militants since they began their advance over a week ago.
A provincial council member confirmed the capture to the AP. The official spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
It leaves Afghanistan’s central government in control of just Kabul and five other provincial capitals out of the country’s 34.
— By Rahim Faiez
TREBON, Czech Republic — Czech leaders have approved a plan to evacuate Afghan staffers at the Czech embassy in Kabul.
The Czechs already had evacuated their own diplomats from the embassy and transported them to Kabul’s international airport.
Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek said Afghan staffers are at risk of “death and torture” if they stay, adding, “We simply can’t allow that to happen.”
The announcement Sunday came as the Taliban seized the last major city outside of Kabul held by the country’s central government, cutting off the capital to the east.
Defense Minister Lubomir Metnar said the Czechs will help those Afghans who worked with Czech troops during their deployment in NATO missions.
Metnar said his country is ready to take care of Afghan interpreters and their families. “We will relocate those who have asked, to the Czech Republic,” Metnar said.
The evacuation flights should take place in next days.